The scarcity lie: how giving more to others leaves more for us

In the wake of recent tube strikes, Robyn Sands explains why supporting industrial action for some workers will lead to a brighter future for all of us.

“Can I have some more?” Supporting workers demands leaves us all better off. Photo: Oliver Twist (2005)

If you paid much attention to the news, social media or if you went outside during the last week or two, you might have noticed that London tube drivers, members of the powerful RMT union, have been on strike, leaving many London commuters foaming at the mouth over long trips to work and cancelled golf games. If you paid much attention to the news, social media or if you went outside during these strikes, whether or not you live in London, you probably are also under the impression that tube drivers are greedy, self-centred and are asking for Bentleys and diamond studded toilet seats as part of their employment contract.

Strikes are normally a means of settling disputes over the division of surplus resulting from the economic value of labour, but they are also effective in revealing the social value of labour. The chaos London was thrown in to during the strike should have reminded Londoners exactly how much they depend on people in these apparently ‘menial’ and less prestigious jobs, from train drivers to cleaners to waste disposal workers. Instead, the city unleashed an outpouring of discomfort and fear that these worker bees, who keep the whole hive running smoothly, may not know their place.

They are actually striking against the enforcement of all-night tube trains alongside the simultaneous sacking of over 900 members of staff, which amounts to not only an underhanded retrospective change to their employment contracts but also presents, they say, a serious safety risk for passengers. It adds up that more hours plus less staff equals tired, overworked drivers. They are striking for the benefit of every tube user in London, but safer tubes isn’t the only way solidarity with the industrial action of others can benefit us.

Why, when workers strike, do we always look enviously at the earnings they already have? Why do well paid people strike, we wonder? The answer is easier than it seems — a workforce with a strong union prepared to take industrial action is more easily able to ask for what it deserves. Workers are well paid because they strike, and perhaps, since the option to strike is not always open to all of us, that is something to be envious of.

Denying somebody else a weekend off and a living wage won’t make your working conditions magically appear. In fact the opposite is true: the more we mandate that other people shouldn’t have these things, the more we chip away at the possibility we can ever have these things for ourselves. It’s no good asking your boss for a pay rise when only last week you publicly declared that 50k was a ludicrous salary and more than enough to raise a family in London.

We must support industrial action in order to create a culture where we, too, are able to ask for what we deserve — or at least what we need to survive. We are keen to undervalue each other as though it somehow increases our own labour value in a capitalist system — the ‘putting others down to make ourselves feel good’ stereotype. In reality, we are devaluing and debasing ourselves by playing in to the hands of those who, ideally, would have us work for as little as possible, in order to keep as much profit as possible to themselves.

Because capitalism is based on scarcity, for the ideology to maintain its power we must be convinced that resources are scarce and that we must compete with each other for them, stepping on each other on the way up. Immigrants are taking your job, the feckless underclass are taking all your tax and the country ‘has no money’; this dog-eat-dog notion has infected our thinking on all fronts, turning even something as abstract and unquantifiable as equality in to a resource to be fought over.

An example of this is the ubiquitous response of ‘men get that too’ ‘white people have that too’ ‘insert privileged group here suffers the same fate’, which is used to encourage people to accept the status quo and not fight it. From the distaste for those tube drivers who ask for more to the imagined threat that affording another group rights somehow takes rights from you, the scarcity lie has us all hooked and fighting each other instead of fighting the power. If you consider yourself a revolutionary, a radical, a progressive or even just a good person, try to stop next time you catch yourself thinking this way. The creation of a better world need not leave anyone behind.

Originally published at on July 22, 2015.